Muslim Radicalization in Europe: Roots and Resolution

by Shireen Hunter

The November 13 bombings in Paris by a number of Muslim radicals suspected of having links to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has once again focused attention on the challenge posed to the security of many European countries, especially those with large Muslim populations, by the radicalization of a small portion of this population.

In the past, young radical Muslims either had or were suspected of having links with other radical Muslim groups active before the emergence of IS. For example, a number of the individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks had lived in Europe (Germany) and were linked to al-Qaeda. In the mid-1990s, perpetrators of terror acts in France were supposed to have links with the Algerian Islamist group (the Front Nationale de Salut). The likelihood is that even after IS is defeated, if the root causes of Muslim extremism are not addressed both within Muslim countries and internationally, other extremist groups will emerge to recruit Europe’s Muslim youth to radicalism.

Under these circumstances, a crucial question that European countries need to address is why some of its Muslim youths are attracted to radical ideas and what can they do to prevent such attraction?

Socio-economic Roots of Muslim Radicalization

The question of whether there is a link between socio-economic deprivation and propensity to radicalization of either of a secular or religious variety has long been hotly debated. Those who dismiss the existence of any connection between economic and social deprivation and radicalism point to Osama bin Laden, who was a member of a fabulously rich Saudi Arabian family. Notwithstanding such exceptions, evidence shows that socio-economic deprivation plays a significant role in generating feelings of alienation that contribute to a propensity to radicalization.

Compared to their fellow citizens, Europe’s Muslim minorities occupy some of the lowest economic ranks, although there are also successful and affluent Muslims. The rate of unemployment among Muslims, especially Muslim youth, is sometimes twice the average. Most Muslims are also employed in low-skill and hence low-paying jobs. Others often own small businesses, such as halal food shops, where they employ their own family members and cater mostly to other Muslims. Meanwhile, opportunities for upward mobility are limited. Once a Muslim is born in a ghetto, moving out of it is no easy job.

The establishment of Muslim ghettoes goes back to the first (and mostly welcome) wave of Muslim migrant workers to Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These migrants were predominantly single, illiterate, and physically strong men hired to help in Europe’s post-war reconstruction. They were supposed to go back to their country of origin once their job was done. Therefore, they were housed in what was to be temporary housing, either in dilapidated neighborhoods or in newly built housing states. But many of these immigrants did not go back. Instead, by the 1970s many were joined by their families as part a policy of family reunification. This process swelled the ranks of Europe’s Muslims and the population of these housing states. It also made Muslims more visible, a visibility that rubbed many local populations the wrong way.

Meanwhile, changes in the patterns of industrial production in Europe, notably France, created an unemployment problem for many Muslim immigrants. The children of these early immigrants, as a result, got caught in a cycle of poverty in the ghetto. This ghetto life also meant that Muslim youth did not have the same educational opportunities, and many dropped out of school before getting a diploma. This lack of adequate education in turn further dimmed their employment prospects. But even those who managed to get an education still faced discrimination in obtaining jobs. Some studies have indicated that having a Muslim name often means that you don’t even get a job interview, let alone a job.

Unemployment and poverty often trap some Muslim youth in a web of petty and not-so-petty crime, which subsequently leads to their imprisonment. Again, studies show that many of these young petty criminals become exposed to more hard-core criminals and Muslim radicals in prison. Radicalization, contrary to popular misconceptions, does not often take place in prisons rather than mosques.

Persistence of Racial and Ethnic Prejudice

Even before the rise of radical Islam and the sharp increase in the number of Europe’s Muslim population, immigrants from North Africa, South Asia, and Africa were disliked because of their ethnicity and race. In the Britain of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the term “Paki-bashing,” referring to Pakistani immigrants, became common. Even those Muslim immigrants who want to integrate face rejection and obstacles. This rejection, in turn, forces them to become more insular and focused on their community. It also makes them resentful of their host country, which sometimes leads them to extremism. Sadly even today, anti-Muslim expressions often hide racist and ethnic prejudice.

Ironically, the embrace by a number of European countries of multiculturalism has contributed to Europe’s current problems. As long as Muslim immigrants were seen as a temporary phenomenon nothing much was done to teach them local languages, which is an important part of the process of integration. European countries also tolerated Muslim preachers who came from the immigrants’ countries of origin and were often poorly educated and encouraged patterns of behavior incompatible with living in Europe. This included extremist preachers such as the blind Imam of the Finsbury Mosque in London, Sheikh Abu Hamza, who finally was imprisoned for spreading terrorist ideas.

Certain groups in Europe have also gratuitously provoked Muslims by such acts as insulting their prophet and their practices, often hiding behind principles of freedom of speech and expression and knowing full well that their governments cannot compromise on such principles. These provocations have often led to retaliatory acts by Muslims, thus setting in motion a cycle of violence. Such acts have also intensified Muslims’ sense of alienation and made some of them more receptive to radical ideas.

Moreover, since the early 1990s the linkage between events in predominantly Muslim countries and the radicalization of Muslims in Europe has deepened. Such events include the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the Algerian civil war of 1991-1997, the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the civil war in Syria. Among other things, these wars have produced new extremist groups and ideologies that have then established links with European Muslims.

What is To Be Done?

In view of the above discussion, it is remarkable that only a very small portion of Europe’s Muslims have been radicalized. However, even a very small number is too much, because it can do tremendous damage, as recent events have demonstrated. Therefore, it is important to address the factors contributing to Muslims’ sense of alienation and greater receptivity to radical discourse.

After the riots of 2005 in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the French minister of interior at the time, said that dealing with France’s Muslim problem required the adoption of what he called a policy of “positive discrimination” vis a vis Muslims—in other words, an affirmative action program aimed at improving educational and employment opportunities for Muslim youth. But nothing was done during his presidency and afterwards. Whether such a program is necessary or not, problems of the Muslim underclass should clearly be addressed. At the same time, a more aggressive policy of cultural integration is necessary. For example, while modest Islamic dress and headscarf can be tolerated, attire such as the burqa and niqab should not be tolerated. Such glaring differences inevitably deepen cultural cleavages between Muslims and European populations. The activities of radical preachers must also be halted.

Last but not least, the connection between European—and American—involvement in events in the Muslim world and the increased risk of radicalization in Europe must be recognized. Laying all the blame at the door of Islam’s inherently violent and obscurantist nature, as some do, will not solve Europe’s problem of Muslim radicalization. A complex problem with complex roots, such radicalization requires a long-term and multi-dimensional approach.

Photo:An Islamist protestor in London protesting over anti-Muslim cartoons in 2006

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.


One Comment

  1. Yes, Europe needs an affirmative action of its own towards Muslim minority. It is long overdue. May be a fresh start can begin with humane and non discriminatory treatment of refugees. But statements such as Burqa or veil should not be tolerated, or inherently violent and obscurantist Islam are deeply disturbing from a scholar like Shireen. Smacks of bigotry and Trumpism. Women’s dress should be women s choice. Extremism in religious garb is a sign of an underlying crisis in a society whether it is in sword wielding monks in Burma or ghettoes of Paris. In fact, until appearance of ISIL, northern Iraq wit its unique religious and ethnic mix had no parallel in the World, a testament to tolerant tradions in Islam. Could such a unique smargosboard of religions survive in Europe in last few centuries? No way.

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